Then [Jesus] looked up at his disciples and said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets. But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets."
"But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you."
Pastor Marc's sermon on All Saints' Sunday (November 3, 2019) on Luke 6:20-31. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below.
Part of my work as a pastor in the New Jersey synod is to help in the formation of new pastors and deacons for the church. Every year, an incredibly diverse array of people feel the call to shepherd God’s people. It’s my job to guide them as they add a new chapter into their already complex, indepth, and faith-filled personal story. So last Friday and Saturday, this candidacy committee met with a group of people who are starting and finishing up that process. We held interviews, filled out mountains of paperwork, and we prayed a lot. The story of the church and the stories of the people God calls to lead it can, sometimes, be pretty messy. But we know that Jesus is always present - and is transforming our entire story into something new.
We met on the other side of New Jersey in a place I’ve never been to before. And that’s Zion Lutheran Church in Oldwick. As a history dork, I found this to be very cool because Zion is the oldest Lutheran congregation in all of New Jersey. And to put that in perspective, I was thrilled that we here celebrated our 60th anniversary just last month. Yet when Zion in Oldwick celebrated their 60th anniversary, the American Revolutionary War had yet to begin. They are a community of faith that is over 300 years old. Their story as a church is long, complex, full of beauty, and full of messiness. Yet they are still figuring out what it means for them to faithfully follow Jesus. Their longevity as a congregation does not mean they know the one perfect way to be “the church.” Rather, their story is very local, connected to the people, community, and geography of the place they call home. Their story, their complete story, is bound together with people. And so sometimes, when it comes to Jesus, it’s important to notice, to name, and to listen to the people who are already there.
In today’s reading from the gospel according to Luke, people are everywhere. Jesus cared deeply about how we treat each other. So he started his sermon with “Blessed are you who are poor” and that “you” was not meant to be abstract. Jesus wasn’t spiritualizing people. He was talking to real people who were living very real lives. But that can be hard to hold onto when Jesus preached like he does today. Because he gives us a lot of words and these words move quickly. We start out with all kinds of blessings and woes, loving your enemies, and a command to turn the other cheek. We hear that we should celebrate when people exclude us; that we should pray for those who abuse us, and that we shouldn’t ask for anything if someone takes something from us. We know that Jesus’ words are meant to take us somewhere but as we listen to this passage, we’re not sure where he is going. Finally, when we get to verse 31, we run into something that feels like a summation of what came before. Everything difficult that we just heard feels more manageable when its condensed to simply be the golden rule. How we care for ourselves and for others is all over this passage. And the last verse, “do to others,” is a clean and neat way to sum up this story while leaving the uncomfortable and messy bits behind.
But there’s another place in this passage where people show up. And that’s at the very beginning of today’s reading. Before Jesus said anything, we hear that he and his disciples were together. Yet in the background of this scene, Jesus was also surrounded by a crowd looking for love, compassion, and healing. So while in the middle of this swirling mass of humanity, that’s when Jesus spoke. Yet what struck me as a bit different today is that, unlike other times when Jesus preached, he wasn’t described here as being physically above his disciples. They weren’t there looking up at him. Instead, Jesus looked up at them. Rather than speaking in a top-down kind of way, where his body implied that his words were coming down from on-high, Jesus spoke from below. He spoke from the place where healing needed to happen and where the uncomfortable and messy bits of life feel the most real. And since Jesus chose to speak up from that place, it showed that he was already there. Jesus wasn’t only interested what was tidy; he chose to be with us in our life as it actually is. Because it’s there when the truth about who we are and whose we are actually meets. And when we hold onto the fullness of our story, that’s when we finally discover how Jesus has shaped, formed, and molded us so that grace, mercy, forgiveness, and love will be there at the beginning of everything that we do.
So unlike us, there are no photos or images of Zion Lutheran Church’s very first worship service. If we want to see what it was like, we have to use our imagination. I’m sure many of us could visualize the colonial farmhouse that service was held in and think about who might have been there in the early 1700s. We can picture the tri-corner hats, the long dresses, and the identities that made up those first Lutherans who settled in western New Jersey. There’s a good chance no one spoke English that day and their style of worship was different from our own. But I think we’re pretty confident that we could each describe what that first part of Zion’s story looked like. So as you mentally hold that image in your head, I want to invite you to identify the family that farmhouse belonged to. Prior to their move to New Jersey, that family were members of the “Dutch” Lutheran church in Manhattan. The head of the household was named Aree van Guinee, which is very dutch, and he had a rather large and multi-generational family. From what I can tell, he was through and through faithful Lutheran. But unlike what we might expect, he came from Africa. He had, at some point, been forcefully abducted and brought to this country as a slave. And after gaining his freedom, he created his own household and he would eventually donate the land Zion Lutheran Church was first built on. Rarely do we, as Lutherans, remember that our diversity as a community is rooted not only in the Germans, Norwegians, and Swedes who brought their faith with them. But when we go back to the beginning, to the people who were already at the start of the story, our history in New Jersey is rooted in a freed African slave and his family.
There’s a messiness in that story - but there’s also a vision of what the church is when we take seriously the fullness of our story. As we, through faith, worship, prayer, and by spending time being this church together, we end up being transformed and changed by Christ who is not afraid of the messiness of who we are. Instead, he’s too busy loving us - and showing us how we can love by not hiding the bits of our story that makes it hard. We are heirs to a faith that passed on to us by people who were already present before we are. Their story, with all its messiness, is our story - and our story, with its messiness, is the church’s story too. On this All Saints’ Sunday, when we light candles in memory and in honor of all those who showed us what God’s grace and love actually looks like, we also acknowledge the fullness of our faithful story. Because that story, through Christ, has already been seen; it’s already been known; and it’s even now being shaped and transformed by God’s grace so that love will be at the forefront of everything we do.
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